Auckland Action Against Poverty slams 'cruel' decision to deport family who wrongly claimed food vouchers during lockdown

Man Holding One Carry on Suitcase on a Simple Plane Background
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Auckland Action Against Poverty is slamming the decision to deport a family with a young child after they used fake addresses to claim food vouchers during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

The Santos family - dad Jeffrey Pinlac, 31, mum Marjorie Aguilar, 27, and their seven-year-old son - were issued deportation notices late last year, which they appealed.

A recently released Immigration and Protection Tribunal decision declined this appeal, saying Jeffrey claimed and used $1600 worth of food vouchers he was not entitled to during April's lockdown. 

In September, he was convicted of using a document for pecuniary advantage and was sentenced to $1600 reparation and 150 hours' community work.

The food vouchers were meant to help people who were not eligible for Government subsidies. However, the father was in New Zealand on a working visa and found he wasn't eligible for Government support during lockdown.

The Santos family say Jeffrey's offending was caused by his ignorance over the law, and would not reoccur.

"The offence occurred during the COVID-19 alert level 4 lockdown period when his income was halved, and he was desperate to provide for his family," reads the tribunal decision.

"The husband and the wife deeply regret the husband's offending."

Brooke Stanley Pao, coordinator at Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), says current benefit levels and government support for migrant communities "force people to break the law" so they can provide for their families.

"Mr Santos was just trying to feed his family. It shows what kind of system we are operating in when he, his wife and young child are now being severely punished for doing that."

Auckland Action Against Poverty slams 'cruel' decision to deport family who wrongly claimed food vouchers during lockdown
Photo credit: Getty Images

A release from AAAP says many migrants and their families were "severely disadvantaged" during the level 4 lockdown because their visas meant they weren't eligible for Government assistance. Despite being given access to emergency benefits, they weren't entitled to supplementary assistance like accommodation or food grants.

"I'm certain that if many of us found ourselves in the position of Mr Santos we would do the same thing. What's more important than making sure you and your family eat?" Stanley Pao says.

"This is absolutely unjust and cruel to send them back to the Philippines which is under one of the strictest and highly militarised responses to lockdowns in the world. What happened to the whole sentiment of 'we're all in this together' and 'team of five million'?"

When the Santos' appealed the Tribunal's decision on a humanitarian basis to deport them, the family said returning to the Philippines would end their dream of living in New Zealand.

"They will return to a very uncertain, deprived and health-endangered life in the Philippines. COVID-19 is raging, employment in their region is virtually impossible to obtain, and the social fabric is unravelling."

But the Tribunal says these were not satisfactorily exceptional circumstances to grant the appeal.

"The appellants have lived in the Philippines for most of their lives and are well familiar with the language, culture and lifestyle there," it read.

"The husband has worked there as a carpenter (an occupation with readily transferable skills), and his experience should assist him to find employment in the Philippines again. Both the husband and the wife have their parents and siblings living in the Philippines, and so should have at least emotional support there."

The family's deportation has been delayed by three months to allow them time to get their affairs in order before leaving the country.